Friday, March 29, 2013

Spring is Finally Here

Gone the scab of ice that kept it snug,
the lake is naked.

Skins of cloud on torn blue:
sky is thin.

A cruelty, the ribs of trees
ribboned by sun’s organdy.

Forsythia’s yellow, delicate rags,
flip in the wind.

Wind buckles the face of the lake;
it flinches under a smack of shot.

Robbed of stoic frost, grass
bleeds from gaffs of the wind.

Rock, ridging the lake,
unchapped of its snowcloth, quakes.

But autumn fruits upon the water,
Plumage of plum, and grape, and pumpkin bills:

Two mallards ride, are sunny baskets;
they bear ripe light.

And a grackle, fat as burgundy,
gurgles on a limb.

His bottle-glossy feathers
shrug off the wind.

-- May Swenson, “Spring Uncovered”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Health Care Sucks

So I recently spent some time in a hospital. (Everyone's doing fine, thanks.) It was an awful experience that drove home everything that I hate about health care, mainly:
  • The cold demeanor of most of the doctors you deal with. The nurses are where you get both the real information and the real compassion.
  • The discomfort about almost every aspect of the experience. From the beds to the bland food to the shared rooms, the entire experience seems to optimize your discomfort.
  • The lack of transparency about what the cost of the services you're receiving, making it a confusing and bewildering experience. To that end, you need to be constantly vigilant about what the doctors are doing, since they don't seem to make decisions based on cost or need. For example, one test was scheduled simply because I have a tattoo, notwithstanding that it's 10 years old and i've had a clean bill of health since then.  
The whole thing was topped off with what was some really incompetent behavior from the attending physician, which i'm not calm enough about quite yet to detail here. Perhaps another time.

Coincidentally, I read a quote from Stephen Brill that seems to sum up why the whole experience is so bewildering - mainly, because you're not in charge:
There is no such thing as a free market in healthcare, if one defines a free market as a place where there is some balance of power between the buyer and the seller. Instead, health care is - except when Medicare is the buyer - a lopsided seller's market. That became clear at both ends of the money trails I followed - from the patients' lack of any knowledge of what they were buying or its prices, much less any leverage to bargain over it, to the sellers' ability and willingness to charge absurdly high prices on everything from gauze pads to ambulance services to cancer wonder drugs.
I have to read Brill's expose on health care costs - from what I hear, it's an excellent piece of writing.

Monday, March 25, 2013

How's the View from Up There?

Fascinating satellite pictures from the Twisted Sifter. My favorite is the one of the Manicouagan Impact Structure in Quebec, but the one showing the growth of Las Vegas is pretty amazing too. Also: water from space always looks great.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kids and Self-organized Learning

Kids are amazing. They can adapt to almost anything, and their lack of preconceptions gives them an astonishing (and humorous) perceptive power. I was reminded of this watching Sugata Mitra's inspirational TED talk about using the cloud to build self-organized learning environments for children. The capabilities that some of the kids in this video demonstrate, with nothing more than a question to solve and a computer, are quite astonishing, and really do point towards a new way forward for teaching and learning.

The Effects of Climate Change

One of the reasons "global warming" is such a poor term for "climate change" is that it gives folks a wrong impression. Yes, all of the greenhouse gasses that we've been releasing are warming up the earth, but this doesn't mean that the entire globe will be getting equally warm. Quite the contrary! As any New Englander can tell you, this indeterminable winter has been a cold and snowy one, leading lots of glib conservatives to quip "What Global Warming?" The reality is that our current pattern is a direct result of climate change. Pete Bouchard, the head Meteorologist for Boston's WHDH, puts it this way:
There are many reasons for stalled weather patterns, but I believe the biggest is the lack of sea ice from climate change. An open ocean leaves a lot of heat in the poles. This fosters high pressure (or blocks in the jetstream), and with very little movement to weather patterns at the top and bottom of the globe, we get pinned down in these long periods of heavy precipitation/drought and hot or cold.
Click the link to see an interesting graphic showing this effect.

Another result of climate change is the probable increase in extremely strong Atlantic storm surges (think Katrina):
Aslak Grinsted who works at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen... proposes [in his paper] a new combined model to prognosticate hurricane surge threats — one that compares the record of hurricane activity in the Atlantic based on storm surge statistics (extracted from tide gauges) to changes in global temperature patterns. ... If the average global temperature increases by 0.4 degrees Celsius, we can expect to see a doubling in the frequency of storm surges like the one following Katrina.
Grim stuff! But this isn't really news; scientists have been predicting the dire effects of climate change for some time. Hell, pick up any issue of Sierra Magazine for the gory details. The question is what are we going to do about it? And the answer appears to be, i'm afraid, not much at all.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting Ready for the Work Week

Revel in the surrealism of Beach House - a music video directed by Eric Wareheim and starring the inimitable Ray Wise (forever Leland Palmer in these parts)

Friday, March 8, 2013

First Lines of Kari Kunzru's "My Revolutions"

"Outside in the garden, workmen from the marquee company are bolting together an aluminum frame on the lawn. They shout to each other and make jokes, theatrically throwing bolts and brackets across the blossom-strewn patch of grass under the three. ... The men seem happy. Maybe because it's because they work in an atmosphere of constant preparty excitement. Perhaps celebration gets inside of them. The secret of the good life: putting up tents."

- Kari Kunzru, My Revolutions.

I'm already hooked. I figured I would like this book after Eric's positive review and how much I liked Gods Without Men, Kunzru's latest novel. But I sat down to read perhaps 10 pages before bed and ripped through 28, forcing myself to put it down due to the hour. Excellent stuff, although I'm not sure how well the first person perspective will pay off. I remember how unlikable some of the characters were in Gods without Men and if the protagonist here ends up like one of them, it might be tough going without the change in perspective that the 3rd person can bring. Still, i'm looking forward to reading more!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Decline of the Mega Bookstore

The largest bookstore in the land - Barnes & Noble - will be shuttering some of its stores:
“…Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble's retail group, said that, over the next decade, the chain will reduce its outlets by about twenty a year to reach a figure of about 450-to-500 consumer stores, down from a peak of 726 in 2008.”
There are many reasons for this, including the power of as a disruptive force and, as the article states, that: “There was an initial belief that Borders' bankruptcy would bring a substantial portion of its in-store business to Barnes & Noble, but that has not turned out to be the case.”

The article ends with a plea to support B&N as the last remaining bookseller in America. Quite a strange place for it to be in – after all, it wasn't so long ago that we were bemoaning B&N for closing our friendly neighborhood bookstore! – and I’m not entirely sold. Still, amazon continues to be an incredibly disruptive force in bookselling and it’ll be interesting to see how the marketplace adjusts - especially as amazon ponders opening their own physical stores.

While I'm no expert, I also found their analysis about eBooks interesting:
“While holding on to ownership of nearly 80 percent of its Nook division, a $300 million investment in Nook from Microsoft last fall, followed by an $89.5 million commitment from Pearson, which sees value in the growing electronic textbook market, are signs that Barnes & Noble can forge a way to secure enough of the digital business to offset the problems it faces in traditional bookselling.”
It seems like the real challenge for any physical store is to offer an electronic delivery method that is convenient and profitable while not stealing business from their physical book business.

It's Funny Because It's True

"Under fire from flight attendants and others, the Transportation Safety Administration’s new rules allowing air passengers to carry small knives, baseball bats, golf clubs, and other sporting goods onto airplanes got a vote of confidence today from the National Arbitrariness Association.
The N.A.A., whose stated mission is to “enhance the randomness, disorder, and confusion of American life,” called the new list of approved items “just what the doctor ordered.”
“We love that the list appears to have been put together with no organizing principle or logical system,” said N.A.A. executive director Carol Foyler. “It combines the virtues of making no sense and being impossible to remember. Knives, bats, golf clubs, billiard cues—it’s like they made this list using refrigerator-poetry magnets.”
...she called the list “very solid, from an arbitrariness point of view—especially when you consider that they are still banning bottled water.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Secret Drones

Can't say I like Rand Paul that much, but he has many positions, like all libertarians, that I sympathize with. Take his talking filibuster of John Brennan for CIA chief on the floor of the Senate tonight:

“I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
At stake, Paul explained, was the prospect of unchecked power afforded to the executive branch if clear rules governing lethal force within the United States are not established.
I applaud such efforts! For too long, the power of the executive branch has gone unchecked, resulting in secret programs like FISA surveillance catch-22 ("our government may monitor certain communications by non-Americans located abroad subject to review by (secretive) courts, but without establishing probable cause or furnishing much in the way of details") or the horrible secrecy of our drone warfare. Here's hoping his actions will result in greater scrutiny of this program. But i'm not holding my breath.

Russian Futurism

Radio silence due to extremely busy schedule. Until normal posting resumes, check out these awesome futuristic drawings from 1970s-era Russia. Completely impractical but oh so pretty.